What it’s Really Like to Own a Vacation Home Rental – Messy Guests – Part 2

In part one of our article series about dealing with messy guests, we primarily focused on prevention, and discussed the best approaches to pre-screen and attract the best guests and how to minimize risks for your vacation home.

In this article, we’ll be talking about some strategies for dealing with the inevitable situation where guests leave your vacation rental home in less than ideal shape after check out.

a_messy_room_by_blalank-d50whl8On-Site Staff Education and Communication:

One of the best ways to keep tabs on your vacation rental home both when it’s empty and when it’s occupied is to utilize an on-site team. Over time, we’ll discuss management teams in more detail here and in the e-course, but for now, let’s assume you have someone that regularly visits the house for lawn/pool or guest services.

The key phrase for this part of your team is “be aware.” You need them to take notice of anything that’s out of the ordinary. This goes beyond just doing the work they are there to do, and is just a general awareness of what your house should look like when it’s occupied, and what it SHOULD NOT look like.

Here’s an example:

If your team goes over to do the lawn or pool, and notices that there is a big pile of bath towels on the pool deck, and one of the living room lamps is on the outside table, they should take notice and let you know immediately. Or, if they notice that the guest are parking in the lawn (this has happened to me), that would also be a red flag. These kinds of signs will be indicative of what the rest of the house probably looks like inside. When appropriate, if the guests are gone, a quick peek in the window might be warranted, just to prevent any further issues.

What to Do with the Information:

Let’s say the example above actually happens, what do you as an owner with this information? The best bet is to use the same strategy of soft-but-confident communication with the guests, while using the “team” as a source.

I typically use email to communicate with my guests, but you may find that guests aren’t checking email on vacation. You may need to send a text (less invasive) or even call to communicate directly. You can send an email first, and ask that they acknowledge it.

Here’s an example of what I would communicate:

“While my team was at the house today doing their routine care, they noticed a couple of issues that they had some concerns about. They saw that the bath towels are being used in the pool, and some of the furniture has been moved to the pool deck (lamp).

We have provided pool towels for all of our guests, and there should be enough to go around. As discussed in the welcome guide, our bath towels should not be used outside. If, for some reason, we are missing some pool towels, and there isn’t at least one for each guest on the reservation, let us know, and I will have my team bring you additional towels.

All lamps, accessories, and furniture should remain where they are and should not be moved. This prevents damage and injury, and we would appreciate if you returned anything that has been moved, back to it’s normal location.

If there is a reason for moving them that we can address as owners, please let us know so that we can do so.

As a reminder, per the rental agreement our guests are responsible for any damage to the house, furniture, or linens during their stay. Guests may also be responsible for additional cleaning and maintanence. Please refer to the Welcome Book for a copy of the rental agreement if there is any confusion about your responsbilities.

Thank you for addressing these issues, we want you to enjoy your stay, so please let us know if there is anything that needs to be corrected, and we will do our best to accomodate you.”

You’ll notice that I was friendly, direct, and reminded them of their responsibilities that they signed up for. I also tried to give them a chance to let us take care of any issues (shifting blame) that may be causing their behavior (maybe the light on the pool deck is out, or towels are missing.) Finally, I reminded them that there will be costs associated with non-compliance and the fact that we are aware of their behavior. Through all of these, the goal is to get mid-stay behavior changes to minimize any damage.

What Else to Look for?

The on-site team is invaluable for being your eyes and ears. Here are a few things they can take notice of:

  • Pets (either more than agreed on, different breeds, or unauthorized)
  • Doors Open (patio doors with the a/c on)
  • Pool Heater Controls Modified (most have locks, which can be broken into, so it’s good to be aware)
  • General Cleanliness
  • Parking Issues or Unauthorized Vehicles (if the reservation has 4 people on it, and there are 6 vehicles outside, that’s a big red flag.)

A Note About Entering the House:

In almost all cases, our on-site team does not enter the home while the house is occupied. This rule prevents guests from claiming theft or anything of that nature. If there were an issue that gave the team probable cause to enter the home, every attempt should be made to first contact the guest, then actually have the guest meet the team at the house so the team doesn’t enter without the guest there. Only in extreme or safety cases should the team go into the house without the guest there.

Documentation:

It’s always a good idea to document any concerns and issues with as much information and “evidence” as you can. For your on-site team, it should be just a matter of snapping and texting or emailing a few pictures of what they see, as well as making note of the dates and times, and issues they see.

Dealing with the Aftermath:

In most cases, you and your team will not even be aware of an issue with a particular guest until after they check out. In this case, some specific steps can help make dealing with the issue a bit more straight forward.

As discussed above, documentation is very important at this step. Photographs, dates, times, and issues should be recorded, as well as any anecdotal or observational comments from the on-site team on what they see (ie: the house was a wreck). All of this data can be very useful if any legal or punitive action is required with the guests.

Claims and Deposits:

I’m hoping that if/when these issues with guests arise, it’s a relatively straight forward situation, and you simply move on to the next step, which is making a claim on the PDP policy, holding back deposits, or possibly collecting additional property damage payments from the guests.

Cost of Damage:

The first thing to do is to assess the cost of any damage. As an example, let’s say that the lamp from our example above gets knocked off the poolside table and is broken. If your home is like mine, the lamp was there at the time you purchased the home, so it’s difficult to assertain a specific value. This goes for many of the other items you have in the house. I approach everything from a replacement value. I will seek out and find a comparible quality lamp, determine it’s cost (including sales tax), and use that value for the claim. For smaller items, a quick search on Amazon.com will give you a quick price on almost anything, which can make that process easier.

Filing a Claim:

Each company will have a different process for filing a claim. If you’re working through VRBO, the company simply requires that you complete and email a pdf form to them. The information is fairly basic, the guest’s name, your name and information, the reservation and policy number (keep these in and email folder,) and then information about the incident/damage, and what items and cost are being claimed.

Once you complete and send this in, you should either get a check in the mail, or communication from the company. In most cases, a quick communication with the guest is all that’s need (unless the damage is substantial).

Dealing with Deposits:

For small items, you should be able to communicate with the guest that the damage was found, and then follow up to get their “side” of what happened, how the damage occurred, etc.

To me, this is why the insurance policy side is nicer, as you may get push back from the guest that the damage was not their fault, they won’t pay, etc. You’ll have to make your own judgement call as to how you handle it, but in many cases, the guest will take responsiblity, then you just retain that portion of their deposit.

It seems that most people are more willing to take responsibliity when they have already paid for the insurance policy and they don’t really stand to lose anything financially since they’ve already paid. Again, I stand pretty firm that the policy is the best way to go.

Collecting Additional Fees:

Beyond basic damage, which is a straight-forward issue to deal with, there are other fees that need to be assessed that may be more difficult to handle, such as additional clean fees, utility overages, and other more dynamic fees.

For example, if a guest simply does none of their agreed-upon responsibilities as far as cleaning goes, your cleaning crew (often a third party) may charge you for additional cleaning, which then you will need to pass along to the guest. This can be an hourly rate, or whatever mark up you feel necessary. I charge my guests $95 for the cleaning fee, which is what my team charges me, so if they charge $200 for the cleaning job, then the guest would owe an additional $105.

Another example would be with excessive utilities. Let’s say that a guest stays for 2 weeks and leaves the door to the pool deck open and the AC cranked down in August. Assuming the AC doesn’t freeze up and require service (something the guests are warned about), a month after the stay, you may notice a huge spike in your electric bill. This can be difficult to prove that it happened with a particular guest unless the on-site team notices the door and has documentation. If that’s in place, though, you can pass along the overage to the guest (if it’s in your rental agreement).

There are other examples like pet fees if they didn’t tell you up front that they were bringing pets, extra guests fees, if applicable, etc.

This can be where the deposit might win out over the insurance policy because you already have cash in hand to collect from. Otherwise, you’ll need to be stern, no nonsense, and a bit forceful in getting paid.

Without a deposit in hand, you’ll need to “bill” the guest for the fees. With VRBO this is quite easy, you simply generate another payment request, which then allows you to include a message with the request. You may choose to include information here referencing a separate email (so you can be more detailed there), or if approbate, just use their form. I prefer the prior, so I can provide pictures and a copy of the agreement.

Let’s assume the guest checked out and left house trashed, here’s what the communication may say:

Payment Request:

“Per email sent 6/20/14, which also includes pictures and documents that I am unable to attach here, a copy of the email text is included below:” (then, put the text from you separate email in.)

Email to Guest:

Hello Guest (use actual name),

We would like to thank you for staying with us at Corvina Cove from 6/1/14 – 6/15/14, we hope that you enjoyed your stay. Unfortunately, upon checkout, the house was left in a less than desirable condition, which included substantial amounts of trash, unwashed dishes, groceries, and a wet spot on the carpet from a dog. As specified in both the provided Welcome Book, and your signed rental agreement (signed on 4/1/14 via VRBO from IP Address 69.22.11.22), all guests are required to dispose of trash and food, wash their dishes, and in general, leave the house in a clean condition. The condition the house was left in required us to bring in additional team members to clean the house before the next check in, at a cost of $105 in addition to the standard cleaning. As per the agreement, you are responsible for these extra cleaning fees. A payment request has been issued through VRBO for this amount.

We understand things can happen, such as a flight change or need to depart as quickly as possible. That does not, however, change the need to get the house prepared for the next guests and the fees associated with doing so.

Please pay the request as soon as possible, and feel free to let us know if you believe this is in error. We have attached pictures from the morning of your check out, and also a copy of the rental agreement that you digitally signed. Thank you very much!

KD”

I hope my tactic makes sense. I’m attempting to not give the guests an “out”, but rather just stating what we found and the costs associated with their not complying to our agreement. Attaching images and the agreement should be all that you need to get the fees paid.

What if They Won’t Pay:

This is an area where you’ll have to make a judgement call, and it may depend on the severity of the issue and cost. You have legal recourse, and could take them to small claims court, but that would likely be time wasted, and you’ll end up upside down financially in the battle. You could have an attorney draft a letter (free if you have a friend that’s a lawyer), which may be effective, but it might also be expensive. The other option is to contact your listing provider (VRBO) with assistance. They may be able to prevent the guest from renting from other VRBO houses, which would spur them on to pay for their negligence.

At the end of the day, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth the fight or not.

Notes in the Reservation:

Unless their is a “good” reason, such as a family emergency or other issue I feel couldn’t be avoided, I do not want these kinds of guests staying in my house again. So, I typically will add a note to their reservation stating what happened and “DO NOT RENT TO” in it so that I can see that if they try to rebook with you again. This goes for guests that left the house messy, but may or may not apply if there’s damage, depending on how it happened, and their response. Intuition can play a role here. I try to minimize risk with my vacation rental home, so I try to eliminate guests that increase my risk.

Example of an Inquiry Reply:

“Thank you for your interest in staying with us again. Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate you at this time, but a cursory search on VRBO showed several other properties that appear to be available. Good luck with your search!”

This is likely to never happen, as most guests would not rebook with a property owner that billed them for extra fees, but you never know. I try not to be dishonest in my responses, so I just use the phrase “unable to accommodate you” instead of “we’re booked”. You can choose whatever response you are comfortable with.

Communicating with the Guests:

No matter what the situation, it is very important that you remain professional and non accusatory as much as possible when communicating with guests. You do not want to give them any ammunition for  a poor review. It’s quite likely that the guest would leave a bad review anyway, but you have some recourse with the listing site (VRBO), especially if you can show that the review was retaliatory. For example, you can ask that it be removed if they give you a bad review because you billed them. Even if the site won’t remove it, you can respond in a professional way to that review. Like Patrick Swayze says in “Road House”, “be nice.” You’ll be happy you did.

Summary:

All of these situations are ones that are likely to happen at least occasionally, so it’s good to know how to handle them when they do. Do your best to protect yourself and property ahead of time, attract the right kinds of guests, and minimize risk against bad guests.